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Supporting Our Veterans

Hearing Loss Has Become a Constant Struggle for This Veteran

Pictured: John Barton

Hearing loss and tinnitus — the most common disabilities experienced by veterans — are invisible but insidious conditions that can seriously affect overall physical and mental health.

We often hear about the devastating injuries sustained by our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their suffering is profound and should be a bigger part of our national consciousness. We Americans should also talk about the most common disabilities experienced by veterans: hearing loss and tinnitus. These less visible but insidious conditions can upend every aspect of veterans’ lives: physical and psychological wellness, along with social interactions and even work performance. 

I know this all too well. My hearing was damaged during two combat tours as a Marine infantryman, and later as a Light Armored Reconnaissance vehicle commander, from 2001 to 2011.

One in four of 18 million veterans had a service-related disability in 2018, and according to the June 2020 National Health Statistics Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, hearing loss and tinnitus are among the top disabilities. 

A physical and psychological battle

My hearing was damaged when the pressure from a rocket propelled grenade pierced my eardrum, and the loss was compounded by countless firefights and riding in noisy armored vehicles as a platoon commander.

Today I am a consultant in Hollywood on films and video games about combat and war, and, as I did in Afghanistan and Iraq, I relax by kicking back and playing video games. Because my hearing is impaired, I tend to crank up the volume to hear better, but it never occurred to me until watching a short video called “Grenades” that I was adding insult to injury and probably making my hearing loss worse.   

Hearing loss is a constant struggle for me, both physically draining and psychologically frustrating. People have to yell to get my attention. I hear ringing in my ears that causes dizziness and headaches. I can’t hear certain frequencies, which makes listening to music difficult. I don’t talk on the phone unless I use earbuds, otherwise I can’t hear what the other person is saying. I find myself talking much louder than I should or need to in social settings. I can’t hear TV unless I blast the volume so loud others can’t tolerate it.

I’m aware that hearing damage has broader health ramifications, including a link between untreated hearing damage and cognitive decline. Difficulty hearing also puts stress on the heart by releasing fight or flight hormones. While I have not had these problems, I’d be a fool if I didn’t worry about the future.

Hearing health

Every veteran out of many dozens I know has some degree of hearing loss. Because of this, I have become an advocate and am always telling fellow vets and everyone else to protect their hearing from loud noises and get their ears checked twice a year.

In training, we were taught to use hearing protection and did so religiously. Earplugs were mandatory on almost all live-fire training ranges. But the military’s operational practices during combat are far less restrictive than in training. Basically, ear-pro is optional in war.

The bigger issue was not having access to more advanced ear-pro technology that pilots, tank drivers, flight line crew, mechanics, and others did have. Some of that technology is making its way into the infantry and other fighting units. However, it wasn’t until this year that combat ground units finally got full over-the ear-combination communication and ear-pro equipment.  

I encourage the military to standardize the best hearing and communications equipment; create a more rigid policy for its use; offer better education about the importance of hearing protection; make biannual or annual hearing tests mandatory (instead of every six years); and teach soldiers how to evaluate their own hearing, with an open path to bringing it up the chain of command.

Jon Barton served with the Marines from 2001-11 as an 0351 infantry assaultman, LAR antitank vehicle commander, and battalion-level asymmetric warfare/counter IED instructor. He appears in a video about noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus produced by Hearing Health Foundation,

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